On a bright and clear day in January, we met with U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Dan Kritenbrink for the first time. What was supposedly a nerve-racking moment turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences the team has had. Instead of a formal set up inside the U.S. Embassy, we were lucky to see one of the most important people in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship in a relaxed and entertaining environment. And instead of hours-long discussions on trade and politics, we were treated to a musical affair that could easily outdo a Beyoncé concert.
We followed Ambassador Kritenbrink as he strolled down the storied streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, stopping at Hoàn Kiếm Lake and Saigon Central Post Office, drank cà phê on the sidewalks and rapped his heart out with Wowy, one of the pioneers of Vietnam's underground rap scene.
It was an experience to remember, and we dare say, a performance to be etched in U.S.-Vietnam history. This nation, that has become Ambassador Kritenbrink’s home for the past three years, could not be more grateful for the legacy he’s leaving behind and the unmatched singing flair he’s shown in a surprise music video, which Vietcetera dropped today.
In between takes, Vietcetera sat down with Ambassador Dan Kritenbrink, who was brimming with pride and wisdom as he looked back at the highlights of his time in Vietnam.
How have the past three years been as the bridge between the U.S. and Vietnam?
The breadth and depth of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership today is simply stunning. We cooperate closely on everything from security, trade, and education, to war legacies, energy, and health. We are committed to a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam.
During my tenure as Ambassador, the United States and Vietnam have reached many important milestones. To keep this as an interview, rather than turn it into a book, I’d like to highlight four things I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of.
- First, I would like to highlight our cooperation on security challenges. You need look no further than Vietnam’s skillful hosting of the February 2019 Hanoi Summit between President Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un to see how trusted a partner Vietnam has become. We continue to make significant investments in Vietnam’s defense capabilities, including its maritime capacities, to advance our shared interest in freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. I was also delighted to welcome two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to Vietnam during my tenure. Ship visits are not just symbols of our security cooperation, but also offer transformative opportunities for American sailors to meet young Vietnamese people and experience Vietnam’s dynamic culture.
- Second, it has been wonderful to see the birth of Fulbright University Vietnam, a cutting-edge university supported by both our governments. Fulbright University Vietnam has some of the most impressive students I have ever met, and I am confident these students will go on to do incredible things. I was absolutely thrilled that in July 2020 our two governments signed an implementing agreement to bring U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to Vietnam for the first time in 2022. The Peace Corps volunteers will teach English in Vietnamese classrooms and, more importantly, build strong people-to-people ties between Vietnam and the United States.
- Third, I am proud of how during these challenging times, the United States and Vietnam stood side-by-side to fight COVID-19. U.S.-Vietnam health cooperation is one of the brightest areas of our relationship. The United States contributed over $13 million, as well as donated 100 ventilators, to support Vietnam’s fight against COVID-19 and to support its economic recovery. At the same time, I have been moved as the Vietnamese government, private Vietnamese citizens, businesses, and other organizations donated over 3.5 million pieces of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help Americans in our fight against COVID-19. These donations have saved lives in the United States, and for that we will be eternally grateful.
- Fourth, I am proud to have participated in a number of events to promote reconciliation between our two countries, including my visit to the Trường Sơn Martyrs Cemetery and Hiền Lương Bridge in Quảng Trị, the Martyrs Cemetery in Ho Chi Minh City, the Hàm Rồng Bridge in Thanh Hóa, and the Biên Hòa (Bình An) Cemetery. Promoting reconciliation and friendship between our peoples and working to overcome the legacies of war have been incredibly meaningful to me.
As we welcome the Year of the Buffalo, I am confident that the U.S.-Vietnam partnership will continue to grow. You might say I am bullish about our future!
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As your tenure comes to an end, what inspirational parting words do you want to share with the Vietnamese people?
Many people look at the U.S.-Vietnam relationship and call our progress a miracle. While what we have accomplished is indeed remarkable, it was not a miracle, and it was not an accident, as the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson taught me. Everything we have achieved has been built on the painstaking work of those in both countries who came before us. It is the result of decades of focused effort in both countries. Every single day, our two countries are working together with a common sense of purpose, for our mutual benefit.
Today, our nations are trusted partners with a friendship anchored in mutual respect and trust, including respect for one another’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and respective political systems.
These incredible achievements that I outlined above would have been inconceivable 25 years ago. That we are celebrating a quarter century of diplomatic relations is proof that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can overcome resentment, distrust, and bitterness and replace them with trust, respect, and friendship. The United States and Vietnam have proven that former adversaries can become trusted partners. As much as that achievement matters to us here, it is also a profound lesson to the rest of the world.
If you were to give the next U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam a “Don’t do this” advice, what would it be?
I’m not sure the new Ambassador will need my advice. Vietnam is a vital and important partner regionally and globally, and I am confident President Biden will appoint a true professional as the next U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. My only advice would be to enjoy every moment in this beautiful country; for me, this has truly been the best job in the world.
The United States is now under a new administration. What do you think is this shift’s impact on Vietnam-U.S. relations?
It is normal for every new U.S. administration to make changes and adjustments. However, I expect that you will continue to see a great deal of continuity in our relationship with Vietnam, because U.S. interests in the region are longstanding and enduring. We remain committed to peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific.
Regarding our bilateral relationship, the United States remains committed to the comprehensive partnership we have built over the last 25 years. There is strong bipartisan support for our relationship with Vietnam. Our goal is to support the development of a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam. In other words, it is in America’s national interest to see Vietnam succeed. We believe that we are more secure and prosperous when we work together with successful, strong, and likeminded partners such as Vietnam to advance our shared interests to create a free and open region in which we all want to live.
If you were to take President Joe Biden to Vietnam one day, where would you take him? What local delicacy would you want him to try first?
There are so many beautiful and important places in Vietnam that it would be hard to recommend just one place. I have enjoyed the beautiful scenery and lovely people of Vietnam, from the bustling cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to the mountainous areas of northern Vietnam, from the fertile Mekong and Red River Deltas to Vietnam’s beautiful beaches. And the food…every time I step on the scale, I’m reminded of how delicious Vietnamese food is!
Tet is just around the corner. What aspects of Vietnamese Tet do you personally like?
This is my fourth Tet in Vietnam, and I have always loved this time of year. I love Tet because it gives us an opportunity to slow down, reconnect with loved ones, and reflect on the passing year while looking ahead to the New Year. During Tet, we think about what matters most to us.
I can already feel the excitement of the Tet celebration building in my neighborhood – motor scooters are transporting kumquat trees and peach blossoms, and more and more colorful decorations going up all over, making streets, stores, and homes look festive and inviting. You can feel in the air that Tet is just around the corner.
I have done my best while in Vietnam to celebrate Tet like the Vietnamese. My first year here, I learned how to make bánh chưng with Madame Ánh Tuyết at my home. Another year I went to a farm and chose a peach tree and learned how the professionals graft the peach trees. In 2019, I released a carp at Kim Liên pagoda near Hanoi’s Westlake and also had the chance to sing a Tet song with Vietnamese singer Tùng Dương. This year, as you know, I tried to find my inner musical talent, and decided to perform a Tet rap video. Hopefully, it is a success! You can find out more about it by following www.facebook.com/usembassyhanoi and www.facebook.com/USConsulateHCMC. And I can’t wait to eat lots of bánh chưng during Tet. I love bánh chưng!
As you mentioned, you’ve recently done something probably no Ambassador has ever done before – rapping! – how was the experience?
It was a great experience, but it was also a bit daunting! I am delighted to see how popular rap has become in Vietnam over the past few years, and the music of artists like Wowy, Suboi, Binz, and others is inspiring. They took an original American form of music and interpreted it through their Vietnamese experiences to make the incredible music we hear on the radio and internet. I have to admit it was my first time rapping, but Wowy was a great coach! Now I’m waiting to see if Rap Viet is ready to invite me for season 2.